Commentary

Ward Boundary Reform: A Timely (if whimsical) Fable

In which the residents of Rancouria learn that they must be the change they wish to see.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published April 13, 2015

Imagine if you will, two identical cities. One, the city of Idyllium. The other, the city of Rancouria.

Their geographies were identical. Their histories identical. As were their populations.

Each contained a dozen wards, their boundaries set a hundred years ago when their populations were one-third their current sizes.

Over the course of this century, each city grew unevenly. Identically unevenly.

Their downtowns grew far more than any of the other areas of each city. And three other wards also saw greater population increases than the remaining eight.

So whereas at the time of incorporation there was relative parity amongst the twelve zones, as the cities grew organically, as the economies ebbed and flowed, as some areas were invigorate while others struggled, substantial variances came into being.

In fact, four of the eight wards each had less than 20% of the residents of the downtown.

As the provincial body responsible for overseeing such issues, population parity had clear guidelines as to the proportional relationships that should exist between wards of a city.

In Idyllium and Rancouria, talk began at street level of re-drawing the boundary lines.

Now, Idyllium's Council held fast to a tradition of spirited dialogue, energetic debate, and respectful conciliation. Theirs was a governing body able to deal with difficult issues, solve complicated problems by way of regarding the 'big picture' and keep the welfare of the city-as-a-whole, the common good, paramount at all times.

That of Rancouria? Not so much. Theirs was a Council rife with territory-marking. Of self-interest. Of badly-disguised belligerence. It was more common to see dissension and disagreement than unity.

And so the Council of Idyllium accepted the task of rectifying the ward population discrepancies. They were united in the cause.

Each of the Councillors were also committed to properly communicating with their constituents. Reaching out at community meetings. Holding town halls. All toward the goal of ensuring that the residents of Idyllium understood the importance of Council coming up with a solution that was fair for all wards, for all citizens of the city.

"Why?" some were inclined to ask. "Why is this important? Why can't we just leave things as they are?"

Because of the respectful way business was done in Council Chambers, each of the Councillors was able in their own way to explain everything. "Is it fair," one of them might ask, "that those wards with the smallest populations have the same number of representatives at Council as those whose numbers are two, three, four times greater?"

Councillors discussed the issues at length with residents and with each other. Many ideas were tossed about. Research was done to see how other municipalities in the province dealt with similar circumstances.

In the end, after no small amount of effort, a solution was arrived at, a good and sound one that was the very stuff of such a mature city.

Proving that all kinds of things can be accomplished when people put aside their egos and commit themselves to the good of the community as a whole.

In Rancouria, things unfolded differently.

"You're just pushing for this because you want everything to be about you!" accused the smaller wards' Councillors of the four with burgeoning, outsized populations. "You've never liked us! All you think about is you, you, you!"

"You only want what's best for you!" others yelled. "You don't really have the rest of the city's best interests at heart!"

The quartet of Councillors looked upon this firestorm of negativity and responded in kind. Truly, the situation was bringing out behaviour befitting the city's name.

A vote was held at Council on a motion toward a ward boundary review. It was defeated 7-5.

Because far more reasoned minds existed within Rancouria's populace than at its Council, the next day, a citizen petition was initiated by the the city's Civic League.

The provincial body responsible for the oversight of municipalities had in its bylaws a requirement for a ward boundary review if a certain number of names (a set figure or a percentage of the population) were collected and presented to Council.

No vote by their representatives at City Hall could countermand such a petition.

And so over the course of a month, community meetings were organized, petition sheets were available to be signed at many locations...even a town hall was held to properly explain the situation to the city's residents.

It was surprising to note that the vehemence against boundary review as shown by the smaller wards' Councillors was not found at street level.

Residents were not up in arms, calling for the more populous wards' Councillors' heads. They were concerned about somehow losing their identity, but once given the chance to properly digest the prospective geographical line re-drawings as communicated by community leaders, they could appreciate the logic of the issue's resolution.

Meaning that what was being displayed at Council (and in the media, at every turn) had more to do with personality and ego than with common sense.

Some Councillors dismissed the effort, joking that the petition would produce no more than a few hundred names. Amongst optimistic Rancourians, it was hoped that a thousand might be collected. Perhaps fifteen-hundred. Probably two thousand max.

27,000. Twenty-seven thousand names were gathered. Proof positive that Rancourians were not made of the same stuff as their Councillors.

Because of the strength of the petition, a consultant was quickly hired to lead the effort. She was thorough, she was fair, she listened with a generous ear to all residents who took the time to contribute to the discussion.

Six months later, she submitted her findings and offered her recommendation to the City. Council was legally bound to accept it, and two years after this, a municipal election was held with re-drawn ward boundaries.

The sky didn't fall.

There was no pandemonium, no human sacrifice, dogs and cats did not begin living together, there was no mass hysteria.

But despite there being equality at Rancouria's Council, despite there being better balance, despite Councillors having the opportunity to walking a mile in someone else's shoes, business carried on as usual at Council in Rancouria.

But not for Rancourians themselves. The exercise had taught them an important lesson: They really did have to be the change they wanted to see.

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted April 17, 2015 at 07:59:27

"Residents were not up in arms" -- our situation in a nutshell, I think.

Our tail is wagging the dog here. I don't necessarily agree that term limits would solve that problem, but it's definitely true that some councillors now have a "little kingdom" mentality. They are far too cosy in their chairs.

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